Mary and Christmas

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by James Goldberg

EveningIt’s getting cold outside, where I live. The nights are getting long. And even though I know I live in a blessed age when grocery stores stay full all year round, there’s still something about the winter that reminds me of human hunger and vulnerability.

My wife and I have a newborn son. He came several weeks early with two birth defects that kept him from eating or breathing on his own until after three surgeries and seven weeks in intensive care. He’s home now, and eating plenty, but still smaller than our others when they were born. When I look at his tiny body or think of how narrow the open space in his nose for air is, I am still filled with awe and fear over the delicate miracle of life.

I know Jesus probably wasn’t born in the winter, and certainly wasn’t born in a country as dark and cold as my own. But I think it’s good, when the winter comes, that we remember a woman lying in a forgotten corner of a town far from her home two thousand years ago and holding her tiny, tired newborn son. A sacred son who cares for each of us in something like the way his mother must have cared for him.

Over the past two years, I wrote a novel called The Five Books of Jesus. As we get close to this Christmas, I want to share a few excerpts about Mary, whose birth-giving we celebrate.

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In the book, we first see Mary after reports about Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum start to come back to Nazareth. Admirers of Jesus tell Mary what her son has done. As his mother, though, she also wants to know how he’s doing:

Mary asks these people a litany of questions about her son: where does he sleep? how many hours is he sleeping? how does he keep warm at night? how does he stay healthy if he’s always surrounded by the sick? is he eating enough? Even his most ardent admirers have to throw their hands up against the river of her words and are forced to admit with more than a little shame that they’ve never paid enough attention to his condition to give her answers.

But Mary is not the kind of woman who gives up. [...] Close your eyes and see him again, she says: was he wearing a robe, too, or just a shirt? Were any patches of hair or skin showing through threadbare spots in his clothes? What about his face, she asks, and grabs one of her other sons to demonstrate: did the skin under his eyes sag here, were there dark spots right through here?—he gets very distinctive marks under his eyes when he isn’t sleeping well, she says, they couldn’t have missed them.

Soon it’s Mary who is letting concern for another keep her from eating; soon it’s Mary with distinctive dark spots under her eyes, and that’s when her sons say “enough” and pack their things to go. James, Judas, and Simon leave their brother Joseph to care for their dead father’s business and ask their youngest sister to tend the animals and keep up the house while they take Mary to see her oldest son. If his condition is better than she expects, they reason, she may be content with giving him a mother’s short scolding. If things are looking out of control, though, Joseph’s sons are stubborn when they need to be and strong as the trees whose wood their father lived by, so they’re prepared to bring their brother home.

When Mary and her other sons find Jesus, many of her fears are confirmed. His ministry is taking a physical and emotional toll on him. And as recorded in the gospels, he refuses to come back with his brothers to rest, on the grounds that all those willing to accept his father’s will are his brothers and sisters now.

So Mary lets her oldest son go back to his work. And he goes out preaching, teaching, healing, and organizing far from the family–until it’s time for him to turn south toward Jerusalem. He sends apostles to ask her to come on the journey with him, and she waits at Martha’s home until Jesus and the rest of the apostles arrive:

They’re hot and they’re tired, but John and Judas still break into a run and race each other to the house when they see Martha’s children playing outside. John gets there first and the boys jump on his back. The little girls crowd around Judas instead—they still remember how he shared some dried fruit with them and their brothers the last time he came.

When Jesus arrives in the courtyard, his mother takes one look at him, turns around and marches off toward the kitchen.

“Don’t you want to greet your son?” Martha asks.

“Of course,” says Mary, loud enough for everyone to hear, “but look at how thin he is. He needs to eat first so there’s something for me to hug.”

Jesus laughs. “Man doesn’t live by bread alone,” he calls after her, “but by heeding the words of God.”

By the sweat of your face you should eat your bread,” she shouts back. “God says you have to eat.”

Jesus laughs again, turns to his disciples, and throws his hands up. “My mother has defeated me!” he says, and he crouches down beside the courtyard wall to wait.

Martha’s youngest daughter sits on the ground beside him and plays with the fringes on his robe.

Jesus turns to James. “Since we have some time,” he says, “maybe you can tell me what all of you were arguing about on the road.”

It’s not nearly as embarrassing to say something foolish as it is to be asked, after a period of more thoughtful reflection, to repeat it. James doesn’t think he can hide anything from Jesus, but he doesn’t want to speak up, either.

Jesus looks to the other apostles. “You still want to know who’s the most important in the Kingdom of God?” he says.

And though they all shake their heads and mumble apologies, Jesus rises and scoops up Martha’s youngest daughter. She giggles as he puts her up on his shoulder.

“If you can be as small as this child,” says Jesus, “then I’ll lift you up, too, and you can be the greatest!”

The girl laughs again as Jesus spins her around and the apostles feel shame loosen its grip on their hearts. From the kitchen, the women hear the laughter, and the sisters drag Jesus’ mother away from her cooking for a moment to go with them to see what’s going on.

They come into the courtyard as Jesus lowers Martha’s daughter down off his shoulder and holds her tight for a moment in his arms. “Whoever receives even one child in my name receives the whole kingdom of God,” Jesus says.

“Then women are truly blessed,” says Jesus’ mother, and she laughs. “I’ve received the whole kingdom straight from heaven now seven times!”

The book spends time on Mary’s experience in Jerusalem in the final week of her son’s life. She grates the bitter herbs for his last Passover. While most of the apostles go into hiding, she walks out past the soldiers at the city gate to stand by him as he’s crucified. She feels the cold wind blow across Golgotha, and helps wrap his body in linen when it’s taken down from the cross.

And she’s one of the few witnesses at his empty tomb–to see how a stone has been rolled aside without hands, which will go on to fill the earth.

In the last “book” of The Five Books of Jesus, in a short section called “Devarim” or “Words,” Mary is asked about some of her experiences:

Mary’s hair is white and thinning by the time the foreign doctor comes to visit; her joints are sore and stiff. He speaks halting Aramaic with a heavy accent; she wishes she’d been educated, so she could talk to him in his native Greek tongue.

People have been talking about her son for decades, but no one has asked her so many questions before, or listened so carefully to her answers. He has some trouble understanding the rural accent she’s never lost, so she has to repeat some things several times before he seems able to follow. He says—if she understands him correctly—that he wants to know exactly what happened. He says he’s heard more than one version of every story and he wants to get it right. So she tries to tell him everything, but it takes so long, and there’s so much to talk about, she soon settles for smiling widely and nodding as soon as he seems to understand the heart of what she’s said.

After he’s gone through all the common stories and sayings, he asks her about when Jesus was born. No man has asked her about that before. Some men, back in the village, used to look away from her because of whispers they’d heard about it, but no one ever asked.

So she tells him. About the angel, and the prophetess. About how she almost fell off the donkey when the tightening pains became hard and rapid. She laughs as she remembers trying to tell Joseph to let her get down and have the baby on the side of the street, and explains how frustrating it was that whenever she’d get his attention, the pain would have grown too strong for her to talk.

He asks about Jesus’ childhood, but she quickly gives up trying to explain all the places they lived and why they went there. She tries to express instead what a perfect child he was, how infuriating that perfection could sometimes be, and how sometimes, even as a child, he’d say strange things that would sink straight down to the deepest part of her heart, where she’d keep them. Though it wasn’t until later, years later, after everything had happened, that she finally understood what he’d meant.

She falls quiet.

“Do you miss him?” asks Luke.

She smiles. “No,” she says. “He’s not gone.”

Editor’s notes: We’re so thrilled to share excerpts from the debut novel of one of our own! If you are interested in learning more, leave a comment or read more about The Five Books of Jesus on Goodreads, at Amazon, at Motley Vision, from Scott Hales and at Modern Mormon Men, and follow the book with excerpts and giveaways on Facebook. We have loved the book as well!

photo by: h.koppdelaney

About James Goldberg

James Goldberg's family is Jewish on one side, Sikh on the other, and Mormon in the middle. Goldberg co-edits the Everyday Mormon Writer literary website, teaches composition and creative writing courses at BYU, and blogs at Mormon Midrashim. His debut novel, The Five Books of Jesus, was published in September 2012.

5 Responses to Mary and Christmas

  1. jendoop says:

    What an illuminating perspective on Mary and Jesus’ relationship. I’ll be thinking about it through Christmas.

    The book sounds so good!

  2. Bonnie says:

    So excited for the world to see your great talent in this important contribution to Mormon lit! Merry Christmas James, and all. It’s so tender to place ourselves in the world the Savior could have experienced as we consider all we have been given by Him.

  3. Jan Hackett says:

    Your book sounds wonderful. Placing Christ’s mortal family on a personal level, though fiction, helps me want to learn more about him. I am looking forward to reading it.

  4. Ray says:

    Thanks for the reminder, James, that Jesus had a life outside of his ministry – one that he “laid down” for his “friends”.

    I often have thought about Mary and the account we have of her. It is SO sparse – and I think we romanticize it so much that we tend to forget how precarious her situation was, in multiple ways. Joseph could have had her killed; he could have “put her away” privately; she could have died in childbirth very easily; she apparently had to leave her home and spend her “growing months” with her cousin, Elizabeth – probably to avoid the shame, condemnation and judgment that would have been her lot as people learned she had conceived a child not by her betrothed; ultimately, she had to deal with the conflict between what she originally thought her son would do and be and what he actually did and was not; and, finally, she has to deal with being adored not for who she was but “merely” for her relationship to someone else – and I don’t think it’s insignificant to point out that she had a life of her own (as a mother to other children, as a wife, perhaps in a vocation of her own, probably as a widow, as a member of a community, etc.) that gets lost completely in our records.

    I also think sometimes of the difference between how we view her, with the luxury of looking back on her through eyes of faith regarding her son, and how we view young women like her in our own lives whose babies we don’t honor in the way we honor her son. The young teenager who is pregnant and whose child might or might not change the world deserves to be treated as Joseph treated Mary, not as those around him probably would have treated her.

    I think of a lot of things when I think of Mary, and there is room in our Mormon theology, I believe, to honor her in ways that are non-traditional and in line with the Gospel taught by her son.

  5. Randi says:

    in our extended family, we’ve been working on this in earnest over the last few years. As with most other out of doors Christmas decorations,. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~.

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